Friday, July 30, 2010

Alaska Transportation Pioneer

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

On Wednesday we held a reception in the museum to honor Robert Sheldon and celebrate the official opening of our exhibit about this fascinating Alaska pioneer. Several of Sheldon's family members, including his daughter, were in attendance.

Seven years after being left in Skagway at age 14 to fend for himself, Sheldon built Alaska's first car--even though he had never seen one in person before. This 105 year-old runabout is now on loan to us from the University of Alaska Museum of the North. There's a very entertaining story about Sheldon's motivation for building the car, and we hope you'll come visit and learn all about it.

A few years after he moved to Fairbanks from Skagway, Sheldon ordered the town's first Ford Model T. On July 29, 1913, he and three passengers left Fairbanks to attempt to drive the car over the 360-mile wagon trail to Valdez. They faced many hardships, including crossing the Tanana River at Big Delta. The ferry wasn't operating due to the river's floodwaters, so Sheldon and his crew built their own ferry out of two poling boats from the nearby Native village.

On August 2 (after a side trip to Chitina) the crew arrived in Valdez. Sheldon's pioneering trip proved that cars could navigate the trail, and within a few years he began Alaska's first automobile passenger stage on what would become the Richardson Highway. Sheldon was a vigorous promoter of tourism in Alaska, and in the 1920s he and his partners operated the first bus concession in Mt. McKinley National Park. Sheldon also served as an Alaska Road Commissioner, Territorial legislator, State Representative and Fairbanks postmaster before passing away in 1983.

Despite all of Robert Sheldon's contributions to Alaska transportation history, his name graces no highway, street or monument. Perhaps the new bridge being constructed in downtown Fairbanks could be named after him? We think that would be an appropriate honor for this remarkable man.

 Lower photos courtesy of Frances Erickson, daughter of Robert Sheldon. May not be used without permission.

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